After eight weeks, Menendez corruption trial goes to the jury

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Jury deliberations began shortly after 3 o’clock Monday afternoon. Before that, the jury heard two powerful presentations by the lawyers.

Sen. Bob Menendez’s lead attorney, Abbe Lowell, demonstrated why he’s one of the top defense lawyers in Washington.

His 3-hour closing argument picked apart the government’s accusation of a bribery conspiracy between Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen. Lowell said for bribery to occur, there has to be an agreement at the time of the hatching of the conspiracy.

Lowell asked jurors, “Did you hear any evidence that any agreement was reached between these two men in January 2006?”

The case was all innuendo and assumption, Lowell said.

Menendez was seen walking into court Monday morning. He is accused of going to bat for Melgen with government agencies in return for trips, flights and campaign contributions. Lowell told jurors that Melgen flying Menendez to Melgen’s vacation home in the Dominican Republic was no different than if a juror invited a longtime friend to a house along the Jersey Shore.

Lowell said the government had been overzealous, selective in its presentation of evidence and hadn’t painted a complete picture of this friendship.

“It’s based on assumptions,” Lowell said of the government’s case. “Assumptions are not evidence. They are not even circumstantial evidence. They’re guesses and speculations, and that’s all they are.”

“You’d be mad at the government if they came after you like that,” he told jurors. Then, he said, “Be mad now!”

After Lowell finished, lead prosecutor Peter Koski delivered the government’s rebuttal. And as persuasive as Lowell had been, Koski scored points as well.

He told jurors to use their common sense to evaluate what they’d heard.

“The issue in this case is not whether Dr. Melgen and Sen. Menendez were friends. The issue is did they commit a crime together? … The defense would like you to believe that friendship and bribery cannot co-exist?” said Koski.

To the defense argument that nothing came of the senator’s attempts to assist his friend, Koski said, “An unsuccessful bribe scheme is just as much a threat to our democracy as a successful bribe scheme.”

Lowell spoke with the urgency of a man trying to save another man’s career. Koski was impassioned in a different way. Each ended with a flourish.

Lowell told jurors, “You are the safety net, you are the firewall against prosecutors not living up to their constitutional duties.”

Koski said of the alleged scheme, “Don’t let it stand. Tell these defendants we’re here because we cannot tolerate corruption.”

The jury of seven women and five men retired at that point. Their charge? To pick a foreperson and begin deliberations.